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A Nightmare On Elm Street: The “Craven” Trilogy

In 1984, Wes Craven released the seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street; Craven wrote and directed the film himself with Robert Shaye producing.  By that summer, the slasher movement was already in full swing. Early classics like Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978) paved the way for Friday the 13th (1980); after that, the floodgates were open. Despite outrage from certain critics, moviegoers just couldn’t get enough of the slasher. Craven was already a horror stalwart by the time he got the idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street, having broken ground in the ’70s with exploitation films like Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Nothing would prepare anyone for the film Wes Craven was about to make next.

With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven created not only a perfect film but a genre icon the likes of which the world has only seen a few times—Freddy Krueger. Wes himself never wanted a franchise; in the end, the character outgrew even him. Along the way, the late horror master would return to the land of dreams he created; once to help steer the franchise back on course and then finally to make a new film that again changed the rules of horror altogether. Here’s a look back at what I like to call “the Craven trilogy:”

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven's original A Nightmare On Elm Street kept Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) hidden in the shadows.

Part one of “the Craven trilogy” is the original film. Going back and watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s hard to separate the character Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) from the franchise as opposed to the iteration in the original film. Where a lot of the sequels (most without Wes Craven’s involvement) focused more on Freddy Krueger and outrageous dream set pieces, A Nightmare on Elm Street is an extremely serious film; separating this film entirely from everything that follows is the best way to approach it. All of those iconic one-liners and wise-cracking moments of Freddy Krueger slicing and dicing his way into our collective hearts came later. Wes Craven made a movie that was meant to terrify and wholly succeeded.

Krueger is more a presence in the original Nightmare than an actual living breathing person. Craven knew that if you showed too much of the monster in your film, the monster ceased to be scary. To double down on that, once you fully brought the monster out of the darkness and into the sunlight, that was it. The monster would never be as scary again; there is nothing scarier than what one can imagine. The original gave the audience just enough of Freddy Krueger to let their mind fill in the rest with terrifying possibilities.

A recurring theme throughout the Nightmare on Elm Street series, especially in the “Craven” trilogy, is a hallucinatory, dream-like surreality where everything should be questioned. The audience is dropped into the middle of one character’s point of view and then narratively the film blossoms outward like a flower. In the original, after the iconic opening moment of Freddy’s (Robert Englund) hands putting the finishing touches on his razor-fingered glove, the film immediately cuts to Tina (Amana Wyss) in the middle of a dream. The entire sequence has a Hieronymous Bosch influence to it, with wild animals popping up in dark corridors and strange child-like cries echoing from nowhere. The audience is firmly with the “Hitchcock blonde” Tina as she works her way down into Freddy’s boiler room. He’s only seen in shadows and heard in scrapes as nails slide down metal pipes before jump-scaring Tina right out of her dream.

Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) makes the fatal mistake of falling asleep in the bath with Krueger on the loose in her dreams.

The next morning Tina meets up with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), best friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp) and the story spirals out from there. A Nightmare on Elm Street pulls an old move from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook as the attractive blonde is murdered twenty minutes into the film and the real protagonist is shown to be her best friend Nancy Thompson, the local sheriff’s daughter (John Saxon). Tina’s murder scene is one of the most surreal, gruesome, and heartbreaking in history; Wes lured the audience in and then really gave it to them with ultraviolent glee.

As the mystery unfolds and Nancy discovers the truth about the shared dreams they’ve all been having, she runs out of people to trust in the film; all of the adults fail the kids every step of the way. In a way, A Nightmare on Elm Street feels like a statement on the idea of original sin. The actions, or sins, of these kids parents who themselves did nothing wrong, have caused them to fall prey to a murderous psychopath. What is right? What is wrong?

Further down the franchise, there was a lot done to flesh out his back story, but in the original film Freddy is pure evil. It is, as the iconic classroom scene says, a statement about the world being rotten to its very core. Krueger is that rotten core personified to make people pay for daring to exist amidst such rottenness.

A Nightmare on Elm Street stuck with audiences because it’s the easiest scenario to imagine yourself in—no matter who you are or where you live—that’s what Wes Craven accomplished. A Nightmare on Elm Street is more than just an extremely effective, visceral horror film and Freddy Krueger is more than just a lunchbox or a punchline. Everyone has bad dreams; all teenagers know what it’s like to feel isolated and abandoned by figures of authority. On the flip side, everyone knows that one place they can always drift off to and feel safe is their dreams; nothing is safer than your own warm bed.  Wes Craven, Robert Englund, and A Nightmare on Elm Street forever ruined that notion and created more than just a great film in the process (whether he wanted or intended to or not): Freddy Krueger was truly an icon bigger than life itself.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

The third film in the franchise and the second in the Craven trilogy is the fantasy-adventure A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

Though it—like many other horror films—has amassed a cult following over the ensuing years, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) was considered a complete and total failure upon release. The critics hated it and audiences didn’t turn out. Wes Craven never wanted Nightmare on Elm Street to even have a sequel to begin with; the twist ending from the original keeping Freddy alive was all producer Robert Shaye’s idea. Craven created A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Bob Shaye is the mastermind behind the franchise.

More than anything, Wes Craven really didn’t like this particular sequel, and with good reason. One of Freddy’s Revenge’s many problems is Freddy terrorizing a group of kids at a pool party…none of whom are asleep. In the end, money talks; the original script focused a lot more on Jesse (Mark Patton) than girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers) and Craven’s only real contribution was to suggest to writer David Chaskin to add way more of Lisa, which Chaskin did. Craven also didn’t like the possession aspect, stating the angle made it impossible for audiences to have a clear cut hero or heroine to root for. The problem from New Line’s perspective was the sequel had done so poorly that the “house that Freddy built” was considering discontinuing the Elm Street franchise altogether.

Turning back to the man that invented the franchise, Wes Craven came back on board to write (and possibly direct) the next Nightmare in an attempt to kill the franchise outright. Even though the film that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) became wasn’t what Wes envisioned, it planted the seeds for things to come and led to the re-invigoration of the franchise. Dream Warriors is the film that began the transition of Freddy Krueger from a terrifying boogie man in the shadows into a fully fledged pun slinging rock star for the masses. This idea wouldn’t fully complete itself until the next installment A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). Dream Warriors feels very much of its time and has a much more fantasy-adventure element than the original film. Wes Craven originally wanted to go in a meta direction that he would later revisit for his film New Nightmare (1994), but in the end the studio just felt that script was far too dark.

Much more in line with his own original vision than the fantasy/teen adventure film released, Craven’s greenlit Dream Warriors script saw all of the different kids separately travelling to commit suicide to get away from the nightmares of Freddy Krueger—that’s pretty dark! The studio intervened once again; they already got enough hate mail, all they needed was to add a teen suicide storyline into the mix. Although some aspects of Craven’s script remained intact, including Kristen (Patricia Arquette)’s suicide attempt that lands her in the mental hospital, a lot was changed on the road to production.

Dr. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) reprising her role with Kristen (Patricia Arquette) in Dream Warriors, helping a group of troubled teens in a mental institutions fight Freddy.

The characters in Wes Craven’s original script were completely different iterations of what ended up on the screen; the body count was higher and more visceral than the relatively tame finished version of Dream Warriors. Nancy definitely wasn’t any sort of therapist and Don Thompson (John Saxon) had a larger role, knowing where Krueger’s remains were the whole time while Nancy was on a quest to find and destroy him before he could find the house he was born in and burn it down. The last part sounds a bit convoluted, but the entirety of the script sounds way more in line with the original Nightmare than the Goonies-like film that we ended up with.

Krueger was definitely not spouting one-liners and Craven even reportedly cranked up the vulgarity from the first film. Taryn (Jennifer Rubin) was black in Craven’s script, Kristen wasn’t in the institution the majority of the time and her father was a pretty prominent character. Philip (Bradley Gregg) was only 13 and not in a wheelchair. Joey (Rodney Eastman) built the model of Nancy’s house, not Kristen. Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) was the same character, but both he and Joey were killed off by Freddy. Nancy and Neil (Craig Wasson) (who was much younger) have sex. Overall, Wes Craven’s idea was dark…and the studio no longer wanted a dark film. They wanted a fun rock’n’roll film, so they hired Frank Darabont (The Shawshank RedemptionThe Green Mile)  and Chuck Russell (director, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) to re-write Craven (and Bruce Wagner’s) script.

Although a lot of the elements and basic DNA from Craven’s script were intact to some extent, the studio decided it needed to go in a more crowd-friendly direction. A young Frank Darabont and the film’s director Chuck Russell were brought in to overhaul Wes’s original script. Russell has said in subsequent years that he felt what Wes had done was brilliant, but the studio wanted a lighter tone that was more fun and would guarantee a box office return. So, Russell and Darabont dove into the more ridiculous side of surrealistic kill scenes and set pieces. Most importantly, the film’s third act completely turns Freddy Krueger into the character that audiences fell in love with.

The death scenes in the franchise began to become more elaborate and a large focus of the series beginning with Dream Warriors.

Here’s a boogeyman that was so feared he only thrived in nightmares and now audiences were suddenly cheering him on because the tone had entirely shifted. No longer was A Nightmare on Elm Street about a group of teenagers facing their fears or dealing with the failings of their parents; it was a pure spectacle with Kreuger as both your emcee, star and game master. The set pieces for the kill scenes became all that mattered in subsequent sequels as the story itself became less and less important. At one point in New Nightmare, Heather Langenkamp scoffs at a doctor and proclaims that every child knows who Freddy Kreuger is and compares him to Santa Clause; that’s exactly the type of pop culture force Freddy Krueger became. The age of the faceless killers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees now had someone with more personality than Johnny Carson and a kill count higher than Ed Gein. How could they compete?

Of course, none of this was Wes Craven’s doing or original intention—quite the contrary. He came back to the franchise to kill it and handed over a script that was morphed into something that ensured Krueger would live on for years to come with or without him; the monster had truly outgrown its creator. Craven thought he was done with the franchise at this point and moved on to several other films like Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and People Under the Stairs (1991). No one, especially Wes, ever thought he would come back to the franchise again…and it only took Freddy Krueger’s death to get him back.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Freddy Krueger and Wes Craven are back together in Wes Craven's New Nightmare...and it's no laughing matter.

Freddy Krueger was dead; dwindling box office and too many trips back to the well had eventually caused New Line and franchise producer Bob Shaye to come back dry. The last offering, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) had a real life funeral for the slasher icon with celebrities like Johnny Depp (who got his start acting in the original and had a cameo in Freddy’s Dead) to attend the event. The film ,however, was anything but a proper sendoff to such a great cinematic monster; no promotional stunt could save what was an utter disaster. Freddy’s Dead was New Line’s first 3D film; the movie was peppered with celebrities, a soundtrack with the likes of Iggy Pop, and even had the aforementioned televised Krueger funeral. None of that made a difference;the film opened to terrible reviews from both critics and fans alike. It was time to give up the ghost. New Line Cinema, the “house that Freddy built,” insisted that Krueger was dead and there would be no more A Nightmare on Elm Street films.

You really can’t keep a good dream demon down; what happened next wasn’t exactly a lie either. The original Freddy Krueger as played for six canonical Nightmare on Elm Street films by Robert Englund was indeed dead and buried. Whatever you think of Freddy’s Dead, it accomplished what it set out to do: kill off the monster. A lot of things are about timing; when Wes Craven returned to the franchise for Dream Warriors his original concept revolved around Krueger coming to life on a Nightmare film set, terrorizing the actors. At the time, New Line rejected that idea outright before overhauling the Craven script they actually greenlit. All things in good time, however, as Wes Craven was about to come full circle and reinvent the monster that he created.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) is supposed to take place in the “real” world. Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street) is back starring as a version of herself and eventually reprising her role as Nancy Thompson. In the film, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her fx artist husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and her young son Dylan (Miko Hughes). Wes Craven had never kept his unhappiness about the direction of the franchise after he left to himself; he had been vocal about the initial sequel to his film A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). He generally had a sense of embarrassment about the comedic tone that Freddy took on—starting with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) as well.

If Craven had a problem with the comedy of The Dream Master, the outright self-parody of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare must have made him wince. What had they done to the terrifying monster that he had created not that long ago? Freddy Krueger was unrecognizable to Wes and it was time to (pun intended) start having nightmares again. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a rare horror sequel that stands next to the original; it’s not a traditional sequel by any means either. Wes’ script revisited the rejected idea of Kreuger haunting actors making a new Nightmare film.  Now that he had regained creative control over the franchise for the first time in a decade, the first thing that was going was the comedy. Freddy was going back in the shadows where he belonged; no more jokes, just fear.

Audiences at a talk show cheer on Robert Englund as he surprises Heather Langenkamp in Freddy makeup in Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

Much like the original, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a transition in Wes Craven’s filmmaking career—so New Nightmare can also easily be seen as a precursor to the mega-franchise starter Scream (1996). Both films were about horror films as much as they were horror films; they were very self-aware of the genre in a way that horror films up until that point hadn’t been. Wes did this best in Scream, but the seeds were planted in New Nightmare. The film gave audiences a glimpse inside Hollywood and the realities of living life as an actress after horror. Heather Langenkamp gives the performance of a lifetime that still stands the test of time.The fairy tale elements also only add to the atmosphere of the film.

Robert Englund for the first time played himself and in the credits Freddy Krueger is billed as “himself.” The meta nature of the film had simply never been done before. New Nightmare is also a great way for Wes Craven (and really everyone) to circle back to the original film; the devil is in the details in New Nightmare. Heather Langenkamp is ahead of her time in portraying a working actress and mother who is defined by one role. She’s not standing in the bread line, but she’s not fared as well as others from being in A Nightmare on Elm Street. In one scene, she stands in an empty dressing room after a talk show appearance while kids clamor for Robert Englund’s autograph. Her husband runs a successful fx company but they’re a working family, not living a life of luxury afforded to others who helped create the franchise portraying themselves in New Nightmare like Bob Shaye, the aforementioned Robert Englund, or Wes Craven himself.

As Heather goes further down the rabbit hole and Dylan seems to be more psychologically tormented by Krueger despite never having seen a Nightmare film, there’s a turn in New Nightmare from Wes Craven himself.  He admits to Heather that the reason he is making a new Nightmare film is to keep an eons old evil entity trapped in the form of Freddy Krueger on the screen—where it can do no harm. It’s no surprise that Wes Craven would put the power to stop such an entity in the hands of storytellers. This insertion reminds me of Quentin Tarantino rewriting WWII in Inglorious Basterds (2009) to make the Allies’ victory possible specifically because of cinema itself. All artist pretensions aside—Freddy Krueger is Wes Craven’s creation…only this version isn’t. This evil entity liked Wes Craven’s child demon serial killer creation so much that it took residence in him until New Line killed off the franchise. Now it’s free to run amok in the “real” world…or at least the one New Nightmare mimics as our own.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) waits to fully come into the "real world."

In New Nightmare, Wes was able to take back control of the character he created; he stripped away all the comedic one-liners and ridiculous kill scene set pieces. He remade the slasher icon by taking him back to the dark, sinister place he was always supposed to reside. Krueger still cracks jokes, he always did…but the jokes were more for him to laugh and you to cringe at under Wes’ eye. Mission accomplished then if that’s all this had been about. Craven wanted to show that Krueger had become bigger than everything; bigger than his creator, the stars of the films he terrorized, and finally the very character itself.

With Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the horror auteur showed that he really did know how to handle the series he created best. A lot was working against the film at the time and it was the lowest performing in franchise history despite the overwhelmingly positive critical response that hadn’t been seen since the original. Wes Craven was done with Freddy. He teamed up with writer Kevin Williamson for his next film Scream that completely revolutionized horror and started a whole new chapter in the horror master’s career. That film could never have happened without the ideas born in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Epilogue

 

As far as Wes Craven’s iteration is concerned, Freddy Krueger is dead and always will be; may he rest in torment.  New Line Cinema would go back to the original canon, resurrecting the version of Freddy Krueger plastered on lunchboxes, pinball machines, and coloring books. Played by Robert Englund one last time in Ronny Yu’s Freddy Versus Jason (2003); that film was a stylistic nostalgia driven romp back into the original canon of both franchises. It was a smash with audiences and fared surprisingly well with critics. New Line caught remake fever in 2010, teaming up with Platinum Dunes for a remake of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even with the talents of Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as Nancy Holbrook and Jackie-Earle Haley (Watchmen) taking over the Krueger role, the remake was an ill-advised soulless cash grab.

Wes Craven continued making horror films and thrillers until the day he died in August of 2015. His last film was the fitting Scream 4 (2011), itself an update on the ideas born in New Nightmare but putting the focus on more 21st century modern horror themes like the constant slew of remakes and reboots inundating the genre. The so-called  “Craven trilogy” is a testament to the films that Wes Craven actually made (or was involved) in as opposed to the Nightmare franchise as a whole. Many of the elements that mass audiences came to love about Freddy Krueger (the one-liners, the over-the-top kill scenes, the fourth wall breaking “wink-wink” attitude) was not the Freddy Krueger that Wes Craven created in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Neither Freddy was the true evil lurking underneath in New Nightmare, but Englund’s performance was purposefully much more akin to the original film. These are the films that really left an artistic mark on the world of horror and feel less biased than the rest of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. They still keep me up at night. After all, there’s an Elm Street in every town. Never sleep again.


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Written by steve wandling

Former staff member

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